Last updated on February 9th, 2015
I’m like a lost soul now that I have finished Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. Chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir was so engrossing that I was crawling into bed early to read and long, subway rides from Washington Heights suddenly seemed too short. That unto itself should merit some special book award.
Hamilton’s memoir is triptych. Bones details her idyllic childhood in rural Pennsylvania and its sudden crash and burn when her parents divorced. She was mostly left to fend for herself at the too-tender age of 12 and began lying about her age in order to work, which is how she was introduced to the restaurant world. Hamilton writes about moving to the dirty New York of the 1980s, waitressing, drug abuse, and a crisis crossroads, which ultimately sent her traveling the world.
Blood is the story of Prune, her much-celebrated restaurant in the East Village that is as tiny and perfect as it was when she opened 10 years ago on impulsive instinct. Butter would really be more aptly described as “Olive Oil” as it focuses on her summer sojourns in Puglia with her husband’s Italian family.
Here’s the thing about this book: Hamilton can write. Like really, really write, not just chronicle her life, or be self-aware enough to bring poignancy to her experiences. (She also happens to have an MFA in Fiction.) It’s almost maddening that she can be both a talented chef and such a phenomenal writer. So really, this book is no way limited to those who are interested in food.
The entire narrative unfurls from the magnificent summer lamb roasts her parents would host annually for more than 100 of their friends. Drawing from this, her life’s story becomes an exploration of everything that influenced the menu at Prune. The lamb roasts, the catering jobs, the simple restaurant on a Greek island where she spent a summer, and even her hunger during the long, lean years of Hamilton’s difficult youth. This is why you won’t find froths or food cooked in an immersion circulator at Prune. Her cooking is driven as much by what she has enjoyed as what she craved.
There would be no foam and no “conceptual” or “intellectual” food: just the salty, sweet, starchy, brothy, crispy things that one craves when one is actually hungry.
The lamb roasts of her childhood transcend into the magnificent feasts at the Italian villa where she spends each summer with her beloved mother-in-law. Each year, she begs her husband for the opportunity to cook one of these feasts and annually, he thwarts her efforts. This unfulfilled desire embodies so much of what Hamilton shares with us throughout her memoir.
Blood, Bones and Butter is rich with experiences and while Hamilton’s candid, she doesn’t always share the full story. While some deemed this a bit unsatisfying, I felt that every memory and detail was well-crafted. Sure, it would have been interesting to know why she and her husband didn’t actually live together during much of their marriage, but ultimately, that didn’t serve the larger story. What did was the way her husband found the perfect Italian deli at a point of breakdown, demonstrating his way of surprising her and coming through in a pinch.
While many memoirs today feel somewhat ephemeral, I believe Blood, Bones and Butter will stand up for a long time. There’s nothing trendy about Gabrielle Hamilton. Her prose is as smooth as a warm knife through butter and her approach to cooking is timeless.